Get to Know: Fernanda Santos, a journalist covering Arizona and New Mexico as the Phoenix Bureau Chief for The New York Times.
Fernanda Santos: Fernanda Santos is a journalist who covers Arizona and New Mexico as Phoenix bureau chief for the "New York Times." She was one of the speakers for the series which brings prominent media and communication professionals to ASU Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication. Join me tonight as we get to know Fernanda Santos. Welcome to "Horizonte" and welcome to Arizona. Tell us about what you told the students a few weeks ago.
Fernanda Santos: I told them about the experience of being an immigrant, which is who I am, covering this country and covering a lot of stories about immigration, and to me I think what this experience had taught me the most is the fact that immigrants many times come to this country and they think about assimilating wiping out their identity and becoming American except that we forget that this country, the definition of American is a very flexible, elastic definition, and as I worked as a journalist, as I guess I got older and more mature, wiser maybe, I began to understand that being who I am and being -- bringing my immigrant heritage to what I did and how I did things was what made me special. So, my message to them was mostly, you know, whether you are an immigrant or not, there is always something that makes you special and that is how people should try to be, not try to be like somebody else.
Jose Cardenas: You came to the country as a college student and it was after that that you got into journalism.
Fernanda Santos: Uh-hmm.
Jose Cardenas: How did you come to work for the "New York Times"?
Fernanda Santos: Well, I was a reporter in Rio de Janeiro, which is where I grew up, grew up in Rio, came here to go to graduate school and never really wanted to stay. It was never part of my plan. As I was in graduate school, I found out that I could stay a year with a work permit and try my hand at journalism in this country, I thought why not? Maybe I can get a job here and go to Brazil and get a job there. I started small. I got my first job at a newspaper in Western Massachusetts, the republican in Springfield. And from there, to Lawrence, Massachusetts, daily news in New York, and it was one of those things where the stars aligned at the right time. I think also a lot of -- about getting to the "Times" has to do with timing. I think I was the right person at the right time to show up at their door and also I -- I worked really hard. I mean, I really -- I still do, and I really worked hard. I clearly remember talking to a recruiter from the times, first person I got to talk to, and I worked at the daily news at the time, a tabloid newspaper, and she said, you know, we like you. We think you're great. You have a lot of good things to add and we don't know if you can write. What she was saying they were not sure if I could write like a times journalist would write, which is different than a daily news would write - those were two different formats. I took a big gamble. I applied for a fellowship overseas and I got it. I Quit my job at the daily news and I went and crossed my fingers and everything worked out and I got hired after a few months of working at "people" magazine.
Jose Cardenas: At the Times you covered a variety of topics, education, crime, politics, we have a picture of you with mayor Bloomberg.
Fernanda Santos: I think I was eight or seven months pregnant maybe in that picture.
Jose Cardenas: Was politics a particular aspect of your job in New York that was I assume of great interest?
Fernanda Santos: It is interesting, because my biggest interest in journalism are stories driven by people. What I found about covering city hall as a beat, you know, when you are there all of the time, we had a bureau inside city hall, we were always around with me and two other reporters around the mayor or city council, was that it got to a point that I felt I was losing a connection with the world, with the city around me. I was hearing all of these politicians talk about all of these things but I really wasn't understanding to the same level that I felt that I understood before how the people out there perceive whatever policies they were proposing or laws they were signing, etc. It was a very interesting experience. I had never really covered politics in this country. The Bloomberg administration is a very interesting one. I was there for the whole battle for the third term. He changed a lot so that he could run for the third term and he won. He is still in office. But it wasn't the most rewarding thing I ever did from a personal standpoint and I think a lot about my job is not only a professional reward, but also a personal reward. I think that --
Jose Cardenas: What would you say has been the most rewarding aspect in terms of the topics that you have covered?
Fernanda Santos: I don't think there is one specific thing that I can say a crime is my favorite topic or social issues or child welfare or immigration -- I think that the stories that have satisfied me the most are the stories that have given me the opportunity to talk to people and go to places that I never thought I would be or people I never thought I would meet, you know. I find that my job allows me to learn every day. Be it, you know, in a sentencing in federal court, which is what I did on Wednesday, or a, you know, spending time with a woman cooking tamales in her kitchen, which is what I did on Sunday. There is always something to be learned. That is what I think is so cool about it.
Jose Cardenas: You talked about going places may have not thought you would be at or doing things -- we have a picture of you in Columbia, I assume these are soldiers --
Fernanda Santos: They are community police officers.
Jose Cardenas: What was the focus of the story there?
Fernanda Santos: This was part of my fellowship. I wanted a short-term fellowship and a reporting fellowship. I didn't want to just go and study something. I wanted to actually report on it. I had to be very intrigued about the 50% decline in the violent crime rate in Columbia over the course of 10 years, the perception of the violent city because of the drug battles and -- so, you know, I went there and I ended up spending a lot of time in this place where this picture where this picture was taken. More than a million people live there. A lot of them, most of them are very poor people, and Colombia -- they had started this community policing program, which was a way to bring people closer to police officers and get them to trust the police. There was a big issue of trust. And I thought it was a very counterintuitive idea to get people who always feared the police to work cooperatively with them, and putting these police officers, walking the beat in perhaps one of the most violent parts of the city. So, I just kind of hung out with them for awhile and walked around and got to see places that many Colombians have never seen.
Jose Cardenas: You have been in Arizona since April of this year?
Fernanda Santos: Yes.
Jose Cardenas: Succeeding mark Lacy, the first person from the "New York Times" to be a bureau chief here in Arizona. He made a comment at a forum about a year or so ago about Arizona being in the news a lot. And that being the reason why the "New York Times" is here. Since you have been here, you have covered a tremendous variety of topics, from car washes to raise moneys for various causes including sadly funerals, to the ethic studies issues in Tucson, recent elections. Sheriff Joe Arpaio, of course. Is the range of issues what you expected it to be?
Fernanda Santos: It is what I always dreamed it to be. Because the thing that always was intriguing to me about Arizona was that, you know, it can't just be all about -- crazy politics. There has to be more to this state. What I have found coming here is that we should have had somebody here earlier. There is obviously a lot that goes on here that is either so unique to this state that makes it incredibly interesting for the "New York Times" readership or reflective of issues or situations in other parts of the country that make it a perfect place in which to base a story.
Jose Cardenas: We have one other picture I want to get on before the interview ends of one of those experiences. This is you in -- climbing a water tower in Mexico.
Fernanda Santos: Yes, I was visiting some border towns. What was clear to me, American side, small business districts on the American side suffering a lot from the tight enforcement because for a long time they had relied on Mexican customers crossing the border to shop. And in this specific case, I was in Douglas, Arizona, and the town on the other side -- where this is very, very real, and as a matter of fact, the mayor of Douglas, small business owner who is struggling, a family business that has been there for generations. I wanted to have a sense of really how connected these two cities were. Of course everything is very flat in terms of the housing. Two-story homes at most, and on the American side, there wasn't really anything --
Jose Cardenas: Mexican side they made you climb the water tower--
Fernanda Santos: I asked to climb the water tower. They said sure, go ahead and I did and got a great view.
Jose Cardenas: There is so much to talk about. I'm sure we will have you back on the show to talk about some of the other articles that I know you are working on. We are out of time sadly for now. Thank you so much
Fernanda Santos: Thank you.
Jose Cardenas: That is our show for this Thursday evening. For all of us here at "Horizonte," I'm Jose Cardenas. Have a good night.
Fernanda Santos:Phoenix Bureau Chief, The New York Times;